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Lessons from Research: Parenting Style and Family Dinner

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Parents who are afraid to put their foot down usually have children who step on their toes. ~Chinese Proverb

A recent study from The University of Minnesota’s Project EAT (Eating Among Teens) hones in on an important aspect of successful family dinners: parenting style. Parents who were “authoritative,” meaning understanding of their children, but able to set clear rules and expectations were more successful at creating and maintaining family dinner routines with their teenage children.

In the study, both moms and dads were classified as authoritative, authoritarian, permissive or neglectful based on teens’ answers to a battery of questions about their parents. Authoritative parents were defined as “empathetic and respectful,” but able to maintain clear expectations and rules in the household. Authoritarian parents, on the other hand, were categorized as strict disciplinarians that showed little warmth. The permissive parenting style was empathetic, but with few rules or expectations, and the neglectful style…well, as you can guess, cold, no rules, not showing care or attention. (One hopes this parenting style was rare, but remember, these are “teenage perceptions” we are talking about.)

Interviewing a large sample of boys and girls from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, the researchers found that teens ate dinner with their families more often if they considered their parents to be the kind that listens, but also has set rules and boundaries (authoritative). This makes sense, really. Parents may set rules or expectations that family dinner is important, but mealtime is also probably more enjoyable when parents and kids are engaging each other and listening.

“Tiger mom” debates aside, many parents today strive to be “authoritative,” even if they never thought of it that way. We want to listen to our kids and be understanding of their needs, but at the end of the day, rules and routines are necessary to make family life run more smoothly. When the balance tips more in favor to the child’s individual desires and wants, and less toward family rules and standards, the parent heads towards the permissive zone. Parents today have been chided in the media, sometimes unfairly, for excessive permissiveness. The lean toward permissiveness may be a reaction to the authoritarian or neglectful parenting styles of the past. Or it could be a result of more work and time pressures for bust parents, coupled with less support from extended family that don’t live nearby. Most would agree, though, that there is hell to pay for “giving in” to our kids too often, both on a day-to-day basis and in the long run. As all parents in the trenches know, it can be hard to strike the right balance.

The big lesson of this study, and parents need to hear it loud and clear: it is OK to have rules and routines. In fact, it is better. You are not necessarily squashing your child’s individuality or creativity or self-esteem by setting household rules to live by. Rules and routines are just as important to teens as they are to toddlers, even if evidence like midnight snack-attacks or sleeping in until noon suggests otherwise.

Family dinner is the perfect way to establish a model of rules and expectations that your family lives by. These rules might include: we are respectful to each other, we listen to and talk with together, we take turns, and we are grateful for the food on the table and the effort it embodies (and we don’t ask for something different or demand plain pasta every night). It sounds so simple, but it can be so hard in practice. Never fear, Mom and Dad, if you can get and keep your kids at the table, especially as they age into teens, it is well worth it.

 

Grace R. Freedman, Ph.D. is the founder of eatdinner.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the benefits of family meals and to helping parents make the commitment to regular family dinners, despite the challenges! Her research and academic experience includes work at Columbia University, the New York Academy of Medicine and New York University. She is the mother of three children, whose ages range from kindergartener to teen, and lives in Brooklyn, NY.

 

 

Join the Discussion

6 Responses

  1. Susan T. says:

    Thanks, Grace! This is all great information. The family dinner is a top priority around here.

  2. Great article. It’s interesting to look at how our parenting influences mealtime.

    In our house, there are a few basic food rules. You must have at least 1 bite of everything on your plate. If you don’t like something, just leave it to the side and don’t complain. If you want seconds of something, you have to finish the first serving of everything on your plate first (which often gets them eating the thing they ‘don’t like’ too!).

    Our non-food rule is more of a practice. We pause at the beginning of each meal to share what we are grateful about from our day.

  3. Jhona@Parenting4Christians says:

    I love the post. It’s really a great experience if family members eat together. It is such a great bonding time. Great post!

  4. Thank you for your comments! Family dinner can both help you understand to your kids better, and give you the opportunity to build your relationship on a regular basis.

  5. Tomusjo says:

    As our children became teens we hosted Prom dinners at our home (save money, better food, controlled atmosphere, etc.). I was shocked at the different dining styles of our children’s friends. One boy we knew very well said, ” Oh, I don’t eat vegetables and fruits.” A young woman we had never met before that night (for whom I quickly rustled up a beautiful all vegetarian plate) came to the kitchen to give me a hug and say thank you. Wonder which of these two came from a family that ate family dinner on a regular basis? No question in my mind! We developed a lot of family love and closeness over our big old dining room table.

  6. Lenny Jacobs says:

    I agree that eating together as a family promotes openness and unity in the home. It can be a great avenue for parents to get to know their kids more and for kids to learn more from their parents. Those teens who often times get in trouble are most likely unaware of family mealtimes, especially when they got busy parents who are always on the go leaving them eating alone or with their siblings. It’s sad really. We shouldn’t wait until our teens turned out troubled before becoming involved in their lives. Or delegating our parental responsibilities to boarding schools where they learn good values instead of us teaching them.  It’s nice if parents will be able to have this kind of practice in their homes.

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